RYE, N.H. —New Hampshire is being visited by friends from the arctic now and no, it is not Santa Claus.
There have been dozens of sightings in the past two weeks of snowy owls in places like Kollsman Sports Field complex in Merrimack, Pease Tradeport, Lake Massabesic in Auburn Dec. 4, and a dozen seen Nov. 27 along the coast in Hampton, Seabrook and Rye.
More are apparently on their way here from spotters in Newfoundland, and this is very rare.
It could be that there is a shortage of lemmings and other rodents in places like the Baffin Island and Greenland that are driving them south, or a bumper crop of juveniles who are forced to head to new territory, or both, but bird watchers are enthralled.
Wednesday, while searching for them with avid bird watcher JoAnn O’Shaughnessy of Hampton, we saw a snowy owl who has been hanging out between the Premium Outlet Mall in Merrimack along Route 3 and the Budweiser brewery.
The owl greeted workers at the factory in the morning from a light stand and was basking in the snow in the sun near a balsam bush next to the administration building at noon.
We watched this beautiful raptor for almost a half-hour, preening his feathers and actually walking along the edge of the bush before taking off with a wingspan of about 5 feet. It appeared to have food in its neck, O’Shaughnessy said, a good sign for a bird a long way from home likely forced here because of a lack of food.
It took off over Route 3 and landed near the exit 10 south ramp near the mall.
For a birder, there is nothing like this breathtaking and rare sight, said O’Shaughnessy.
She set up a scope in the parking lot, and workers came by for a view.
“When people look through the scope, they say ‘Oh my God,'” she said.
On Tuesday morning, Seacoast resident Kim Billings was out on an walk in search of birds near Rye Harbor when she snapped a photograph of a snowy owl.
One which was identified as released Nov. 23 near Saskatoon in Saskatchewan showed up in Seabrook last week.
As many as seven or eight at one time are near the border in Salisbury, Mass. Another spot for luck has been Rye Harbor.
Chris Martin at NH Audubon said normally, New Hampshire does not see that many snowy owls. While not on any federally endangered list, they are a rare visitor and a migratory species not in their breeding range.
He fears they may be very hungry and in crisis mode, far from home. He urged people to stay a safe distance and let the bird feed.
But Norman Smith of the Massachusetts Audubon, who has been trapping and relocating snowy owls away from Logan Airport since 1981, said in a video he believes these are healthy, young birds stretching their range.
Martin said he believes the reason there are so many here this year is about food.
“One of the usual explanations for birds who move in mass … is food scarcity,” he said Tuesday. “That goes for cross bills and other disruptive (nomadic) birds.”
When they get to the ocean it is sort of a dead-end. But the land around here does not look like the tundra.
They like moles, voles, and can eat up to 1,600 lemmings a year, according to National Geographic.
“What is usually possible is that most of these dispersers are young birds, juveniles, and that the adults often stay on the territory,” he said, speaking of the arctic.
The elders “are experienced and … they feed themselves first,” he said. “The others have to go farther.”
While mostly a white bird as an adult male, flecks of brown are found, more so in females and juveniles.
About three to five pounds in size, they have a wingspan which is more dark.
They hunt close to the ground and hunt during the day for rodents, but they can also hunt at night.
Last weekend, at least two snowy owls were reported shot at JFK Airport near New York. When word of the shootings got out, there was outrage, and the airport has since decided to trap and release the birds instead.
You can get information and track sightings of the birds in NH at